Traditionally, the Pentateuch was believed to have been written in its entirety by Moses himself - the great hero and early leader of the Israelite people. Critical scholarship has long challenged this attribution, and the classic modern theory holds that the Pentateuch is composed of material taken from four main sources, each of which drew in turn on previous sources and traditions. The four sources are conventionally referred to as J, E, D and P. This four-source theory is generally associated with two 19th century German scholars, Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen, though it can be traced back to H.B.Witter and Jean Astruc in the 18th century.
This "documentary hypothesis" of the origins of the Pentateuch has been challenged for some years now by various scholars, but, while other theories have been put forward, none has yet succeeded in achieving an alternative consensus.
How do we know that there are several different sources in the Pentateuch? One clue that has traditionally been thought to be very important is that different passages use different names or words for God. More generally, the style of different passages can vary quite considerably. Also, in several places, different versions of the same story seem to have been artificially joined together, or even repeated after each other. The classic examples of this are the story of Noah’s ark in Gen. 7-8 - how many animals of each kind did Noah take into the ark? - and the episodes in Genesis in which patriarchs pretend that their wives are their sisters - see 12.10-20, 20.1-18 and 26.6-11.
The sources of the first 4 books of the Pentateuch, according to Richard E. Friedman
The J source
The J source is characterised by an anthropomorphic view of God, and typically uses the personal name ‘Yahweh’ (‘Jahwe’ in German - hence the abbreviation J) to refer to him. It has a particular interest in southern Palestine, which probably means that that was where it was composed (perhaps in Jerusalem). It has been associated with monarchical circles.
For a long time, J was dated to the early years of the first millennium BC. It makes no reference to foreign nations such as the Aramaeans and the Assyrians who caused trouble for the Israelites in later times, and the cursing of Canaan at Gen. 9.26 was thought to reflect the political situation under the early Israelite kings David and Solomon. Its narrative, in fact, stops before the time of the kings and does not attempt to take the story down into the period of the monarchy (c.1025 onwards).
It is now recognised that these arguments are weak: there would, for example, have been no reason for a later writer to introduce the Aramaeans or the Assyrians into stories referring to the distant past, nor any necessity to bring the story down to his own time. More persuasive are the arguments which seek to locate the composition of J much later in Israelite history.
A number of scholars have dated J as late as the post-exilic period (i.e. the period after 538 BC). One piece of evidence that would point in this direction is the presence in J of the story of Joseph and his brothers, which is probably amongst the latest of the J material. The only other reference to the Joseph story in the OT comes in Psalm 105, which was composed long after the exile. There is no hint of it in E, P or D.
There are significant discontinuities in J which lead one to believe that it drew upon several pre-existing sources. One suggestion is that J drew upon three principal earlier narratives: one relating to the early history of the human race (Gen. 1-11), one recounting the history of the patriarchs, or early ancestors of the Israelites (Gen. 12-50), and one telling of the birth of Israel as a nation (Ex.).
The E source
While J refers to God as ‘Yahweh’ and has a particular interest in the south of Palestine, E refers to God as ‘Elohim’ and has a particular interest in the north. The source’s language and theology also resemble those found in other northern texts. It stands midway between P with its exalted view of God and J with its more anthropomorphic theology. It has been associated with prophetic circles.
Theologically speaking, E is particularly concerned with questions of morality, the fear of God, the covenant between God and Israel, and the power of God over human history.
As with J, a number of different datings for E have been suggested, from the tenth century to the exile. It is difficult to choose between the competing theories, though if E did take shape in the north it is tempting to date it before the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 (of course, it may have been re-edited after that date). A number of scholars believe that J and E should be considered together as one source: that E is simply a series of additions made to J by an editor which never existed as an independent text. Such ideas have been contested quite recently by Joel S. Baden in J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch, in which Baden argues that J and E remained separate texts until the Pentateuch as a whole was compiled.
The D source and the Deuteronomists
The book of Deuteronomy, along with the other OT books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, was composed by a group of priests and writers known as the Deuteronomic School or the Deuteronomists.
The book of Deuteronomy is the earliest document of the Deuteronomic School. Its ‘first edition’, which perhaps comprised chapters 12-26 of the final text, was reportedly discovered in the Jerusalem Temple in 622 BC. The ‘discovery’ of the book may very well have been a trick on the part of its writers, who pretended to have found a venerable old document rather than admit that they had written it themselves. It is possible, however, that the book really had been hidden by an earlier group of writers, particularly if it had been composed during the long reign of King Manasseh (697-642). The literary activity of the Deuteronomists would continue well into the sixth century, with the ‘first editions’ of the Deuteronomic historical books probably being completed shortly before the exile (587 BC).
The distinctive concerns of the Deuteronomists included both right moral behaviour and right worship, which to them meant both a complete avoidance of the worship of other deities and a centralisation of the worship of Yahweh in the Jerusalem Temple, as well as the regular celebration of Passover. The Deuteronomists’ ethical teachings encouraged inward sincerity in worship and care for the poor.
The contents of Deuteronomy appear to have been influenced by J and (especially) E. The book underwent successive additions. Chapters 12-26 were expanded by the material between 4.44 and 30.20 (if that material was not already present in the first edition), and in due course the book reached the form in which it appears in modern Bibles.
The historical books produced by the Deuteronomists were also re-edited during and after the exile. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:
Joshua: We can date the final edition of Joshua to c.560 on the basis that the writer seems not to have been aware of any historical happening after that date. There are definite signs that the book went through earlier editions, however: see, for example, the two separate conclusions in chapters 23 and 24. What sources did the composers of the book make use of? Chapters 1-12 draw heavily on material relating to the region occupied by the tribe of Benjamin, and the area around Gilgal in particular. Chapters 13-21 are quite different, and appear to be making use of official archival lists of the administrative districts of Judah (dating from when - the seventh century?). Embedded in various parts of the book are very early traditions, such as the tradition concerning the renewal of the covenant at 8.30-35 and the list of cities of refuge and Levitical cities in chapter 24.
1 and 2 Samuel (originally one book): We can tell that the authors used a variety of different sources, including the lost Book of Jashar (2 Sam. 1.18); various psalms and poems; genealogies and lists of officials (e.g. 1 Sam. 14.49-51, 2 Sam. 3.2-5, 5.13-16, 8.15-18, 20.23-26); and an account of King David’s reign which may possibly go back to within striking distance of David’s lifetime (2 Sam. 9-20, continuing in 1 Kgs. 1-2).
1 and 2 Kings (originally one book): 1 and 2 Kings may date in their earliest form to the seventh century: the incorrect prediction 2 Kgs. 22.20 suggests that the author was writing before 609. On the other hand, the point at which 2 Kings ends suggests that it was re-edited after 566 - and verses 25.27-30 were inserted even later. Sources named in the text include The Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kgs. 11.41), The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel (1 Kgs. 14.19) and The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah (1 Kgs. 14.29).
The P source
P is the Priestly source. As its name implies, it was written by priests and is deeply concerned with matters of cult and ritual. Its view of God is sober, respectful and exalted - the opposite in many ways to that of J. It takes a close interest in genealogies. It probably emerged from the traditions and practices of the Temple at Jerusalem and the important shrine at Shiloh.
It used to be thought that P was composed during or after the exile, but that dating can no longer be maintained. When we compare P’s language to that of Ezekiel, a writer interested in priestly matters who definitely was active during the exile, and to that found in post-exilic writings, we find major discrepancies of vocabulary. The institutions described in P also do not fit with what we know of Israelite religion in the post-exilic period.
One interesting feature of the text of P is that it consists of two distinct layers: ‘real’ P and a series of texts added at a later date. We may call these layers P1 and P2 respectively, though the latter is sometimes referred to by scholars as H (because it is centred on a document known as the Holiness Code). We know that P2 rather than P1 is the later layer because its contents presume the existence of P1 (Lev. 20.25 assumes Lev. 11, Lev. 22.4 assumes Lev. 13-15, Lev. 19.7f is an edited version of Lev. 7.18, and so on). It also tends to spell out what is implicit or latent in P1 - and, unlike P1, it sees the Jerusalem Temple as the only legitimate location for the worship of Yahweh.
P2 itself probably consists of different layers, and seems to have been composed over a period of time. Some of its concerns - its opposition to the worship of Molech and the spirits of the dead, for example - seem to correspond with what we know of conditions in Israel in the latter part of the eighth century. Its emphasis on the Jerusalem Temple recalls the agenda of the Deuteronomists. Differently again, Lev. 23, a chapter dealing with the religious calendar, contains some curious features which strongly suggest that it was composed in Babylon during the exile.